Tuesday, March 27, 2012

3 Billion Reasons to Read a Book

Appeared in City Express, the daily supplement of The New Indian Express, Bangalore, on March 27, 2012

What are unique to the numbers 658,000, 612 and 750 million? These numbers have captured the imagination of the People’s President, Dr A P J Abdul Kalam as none other, such that he has written an entire book keeping them in mind.

After masterpieces such as Wings of Fire, Ignited Minds and India 2020, to name a few – which largely focused on how India could become a superpower in all aspects – Dr Kalam transcends all national barriers with Target 3 Billion, co-authored by IIM-Ahmedabad alumnus Srijan Pal Singh, and dwells on eradicating poverty across the world.

But why 3 billion? The authors expound that the international below poverty line (BPL) community – synonymous in India with the Planning Commission’s ludicrous `32 margin – is about 3 billion; hence the title. Identifying rural-urban migration as the root cause for various problems, the authors assert that the panacea to it lies in the acronym – PURA, or providing urban amenities in rural areas.

Set in the mould of a government plan document, aided probably by Dr Kalam’s experience with bureaucracy during his Presidential stint, Target 3 Billion has a brisk narrative style; the missile man’s personal touch is evident when he relates numerous encounters buttressing the suggestions that the authors proffer. Beginning with agriculture – still India’s largest profession – and extending to sectors such as education, acquiring vocational and technical skills, healthcare, preserving traditional forms of art and farming and threats due to naxalism, Target... attempts to find the links between various sectors and reconstruct the rural psyche. The end result when viewed at the macro level is something as stunning as a Michelangelo fresco, while deconstructing the facets of PURA.

One may be tempted to assume that Target... is a critique on governance across the decades, but it isn’t. It points out that though the percentage of the nation’s population afflicted by poverty has reduced from 55 per cent to 27.5 per cent, in numerical terms it has remained static at about 300 million. The book makes the case for a sustainable rural development model while stressing that benefits of many government schemes fail to actualise due to poor implementation – such as the trickle-down effect of developmental works. The transformation the liberalisation era – India’s watershed moment of economic development – has enabled is given its due; however, the authors also point out that it has resulted in inequitable distribution of wealth.

Target... emphasises that such programmes need to be framed keeping in mind objectives such as identifying the skill-sets of the population in concern, providing them the required technological prowess, and ensuring the organic growth of these schemes. It almost posits itself as a ‘framing governance for dummies’ guide; examples of successful rural development schemes in India and around the world – the astounding success of the Warana Sugar and Milk Cooperatives in Maharashtra, farm innovations in Africa – are given alongside, thereby underlining that its emulation on the national scale need be no Herculean task. We may think of connectivity in terms of cell phone networks or transport services, but Target... looks at it through electronic, knowledge and economic prisms.

Common problems that the nation’s bucolic landscape faces – why public servants, including doctors, consider a rural posting equivalent to a punishment; economic hardships faced by small-scale farmers; how quality education eludes students here – are analysed with amazing clarity. The authors’ enthusiasm is infectious, and it shows; the solutions they propose for such problems are certainly not ingenious, but simple and straight from the heart. Although comparisons may be odious, it is tempting to hark back to Dr Kalam’s earlier work, India 2020, for corollaries. Lastly, a chapter is included on how to realise a PURA structure, which may be of interest to government institutions, NGOs or entrepreneurs.

The book could have done with some proofing (subbing, in journalistic parlance). Case in point: our current diesel oil demand is stated as 43 tonnes (pg 161) which it is said can be met if all wastelands of the nation were to be put under Jatropha cultivation.

If you are still wondering what those three numbers represent, they are the total number of villages and districts in India, and our estimated rural population, respectively.

Above all, the authors ask a very pertinent question: who can do it?

Only time will tell.

Rajagopalan Venkataraman